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facts & arguments

JORI BOLTON/The Globe and Mail

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It was a pleasant February day when a momentary lapse in judgment forced me to confront some uncomfortable truths about myself.

I was spending a week in the countryside, staying in a relative's secluded summer house tucked in among the hilly forests of the Niagara Escarpment.

It was the perfect break from life in the city, and as the temperatures plunged and the snow fell outside, I spent my days cozily indoors, sipping French-press coffee and reading novels by the warmth of the fire.

It was the quiet solitude I had long been craving, but after a few days I started to feel a bit restless. So, late one morning, on a bright, blue-sky day, I pried myself off the couch and set off to explore a provincial park a short drive away.

The park was a veritable winter wonderland, and after a few hours sauntering along snow-covered trails and breathing in crisp fresh air, I felt exhilarated – imbued with a fresh joie de vivre.

When it was time to head back, I was still revelling in the glow from my afternoon wanderings and feeling spontaneous. I wanted to explore more. On a whim, I decided I would skip the dreary highway and find my way home on the tranquil back roads instead.

And that is how I came to follow a meandering road down into the base of a deep valley; how I came to be sitting in my car pondering the implications of a little yellow sign posted beside the road heading up the other side – a yellow sign adorned with three simple words: "No Winter Maintenance."

I sat there, idling the car, mulling this phrase over.

I'm not sure what it was; male bravado, a momentary slip. Whatever it was, it came with a set of suspect rationalizations. "I can do this," I assured myself. "I'll be careful."

With a shrug, I put the car into gear and rolled past the sign.

Like a good pool shark, the road started me off with deceptive ease; a gentle curving slope, a light dusting of snow – nothing a set of winter tires couldn't handle. But a few hundred metres in, as I rounded a sharp corner, my eyes widened. I craned my neck upward at the path ahead. It looked more like a black diamond ski run than a passable road.

It was too late for second thoughts. The road was so narrow that there was no way to turn around. I had no choice but to continue upward.

What happened next passed in a jumbled blur of images and sounds; a blur that ends with my car lying perpendicular in the road, my front tires in an icy ditch, and a singular painful thought bearing down on my mind: "You idiot."

I grabbed for my phone and started anxiously making calls. As I dialled one garage number after another, the voice in my head rhymed off an endless loop of self-directed insults.

What is most incredible is that despite the risks I was now facing, what worried me most was not the prospect of having to spend a frigid night alone in the car, but the thought of having to admit my foolishness to whoever it was that would come and get me out of this mess.

After four or five failed calls, and a heap of self-loathing, I finally managed to reach an open garage and tell the receptionist of my problem.

"Stuck on ol' Campbell's Hill, eh?" she said with a chuckle. But her tone gave me a sense of relief. There was a gentle knowingness to her laugh that said I wasn't the first out-of-towner naive enough to make this foolhardy attempt.

"We'll send someone out," she assured me. "They'll be there shortly."

Within half an hour, a small Caterpillar machine came rumbling up the hill, two unshaven middle-aged men sporting navy jumpsuits at the helm. They didn't laugh at me as I had feared, or berate me for my stupidity. And in the space of 15 minutes, I was back beside that little yellow sign, sporting a bruised ego and a pocket $226 lighter.

Thoreau once wrote: "Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion." I certainly found it to be true that winter day.

As I drove off into the deep purple glow of twilight, I thought about how harshly I had castigated myself for my error. Instead of treating it as a passing mistake, I had allowed it, in that brief stretch of time, to become something so egregious and unforgivable that it was as though it defined my entire character and being. It became not only a foolish decision, but a decision made by a fool.

This was the seed for a sobering realization. The plain truth is, we all make silly mistakes in our lives. I know I will commit many more, and so will the people all around me – friends, family, lovers, strangers. If I cannot rise to the challenge of being patient with my own failings, how likely am I to succeed at being gentle with those of others?

So, as I continue to navigate the road of life, I'm going to try to pay attention to the yellow signs warning me of peril ahead. But when I do inevitably mess up, I will try my best to be gentle with myself. And hopefully, in doing so, I'll learn to be a bit gentler with those around me.

Kevin Caners lives in Toronto.

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